Turkey is an Intermittent Ally but an Indispensable Partner
In just the last few years, as Turkey has combined troubled foreign policy with volatile domestic politics, international observers finally abandoned notions of Turkey as some sort of model. If anything, opinion has now coalesced around the opposite pole: Many now excoriate the Turkish government for risky policies that fueled tensions and diminished Turkey’s regional influence. Ankara, these critics argue, soured relations with important regional states and — after downing Russia’s jet—a major international power. Some question whether Turkey remains a U.S. partner at all.
Yet despite all this scrutiny, Turkey still finds itself much where it’s always been: at the convergence point of major international issues — in this case, stemming from the Syrian crisis. The question for U.S.-Turkish relations is not existential — it’s operational.
Regarding Syria, Washington has ignored policy disputes with Ankara, letting them fester and constrain progress in the civil war. In defining the conflict’s threat, selecting local partners, and managing the humanitarian crisis, U.S. strategy consistently papers over policy divergences. By declining to rectify or actively manage these disputes, the United States misses opportunities to effect more pronounced change in Syria.
On Syria’s most basic questions — what is this conflict and whom are we fighting? — the United States simply ignores the fundamental difference in vision with its Turkish allies.
Publicly, Washington focuses almost exclusively on the self-proclaimed Islamic State. A prolonged air campaign has destroyed the group’s assets, including major infrastructure and other parts of the supply chain for its crucial revenue-generating oil industry. The U.S. Treasury Department sanctions entities and individuals that support the Islamic State economically. The failed train-and-equip program sought Syrian rebel units willing to focus on fighting this group — or at least to lie and profess their intentions to do so.
Turkey plays a central role in U.S. military strategy in Syria. Its Incirlik airbase serves as the operational center for airstrikes. The United States has also pressed Turkey since the war’s early days to rigorously police its border and the flow of fighters across it — a request Turkey took up more seriously in 2015.
Not so covertly, the United States and Turkey collaborate more closely beyond the publicly stated “ISIL-first” strategy. The CIA works with Turkish intelligence to provide support for vetted, moderate anti-Assad rebels out of the border town of Reyhanlı.
Alongside its work with the CIA in Reyhanlı, though, Turkey supports an array of Syrian Salafist and global jihadist groups. As many have documented previously, Turkey continues to support Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and many small groups aligned with those two power players within the jihadist and Salafist camps, respectively.
Thus, regarding Syria, the United States and Turkey work as much at cross-purposes as they do together. By avoiding its policy divergences from Ankara, Washington helps protract the status quo in Syria and hinders its own objectives. U.S. policy has not prioritized formal intensive discussions about rebel groups among major state sponsors. The United States itself will not back all groups currently boasting international support, but formalizing a negotiation process among other states that want to see Assad fall and the Islamic State defeated is an essential step toward greater consensus about which groups merit support.
Yet recent signs that the United States might formalize conversations about rebel group support send entirely the wrong message. The Wall Street Journal reported that Pentagon officials are mulling Turkey’s longstanding request to support Arab opposition groups in securing a strip of territory adjacent to Turkey’s border — in part to assuage Turkish frustration at ongoing U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds. This type of narrow decision-making precludes strengthening collectively all groups focused on a Syrian transition and forestalls progress in the conflict.
The Journal’s report addresses a second point of policy divergence between the United States and Turkey — support for the Syrian Kurds. For more than a year, the United States has coordinated its airstrikes in Syria with Kurdish-led ground forces to roll back the jihadist proto-state’s territorial control. Washington politely ignored near-continuous Turkish pressure to cease support for the Syrian Kurds. U.S. officials routinely emphasized distinctions between the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its sister party in Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), skirting the messy implications of overt support for one wing of a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.
The August 2015 U.S.-Turkey deal authorizing use of Incirlik airbase turned U.S. indifference on its Syrian Kurdish partners. The United States attained operational simplification for its air campaign and ignored Turkey’s use of the deal to muddle operational distinctions and ramp up its military campaign against Kurds. Turkey’s campaign has focused on its restive southeast, but it helped irretrievably squander two years of diminished inter-factional tension and increased trust.
Last month, Washington once more ignored Ankara’s policy views when it backed the PYD-led Syrian Democratic Forces’ seizure of the Tishrin Dam. For months Turkey had reiterated that any PYD move west of the Euphrates River would cross a “red line.” The U.S.-backed PYD capture constituted exactly such a violation in Turkey’s eyes.
U.S. cooperation with the PYD has proved militarily effective, but it represents a diplomatic failure. The United States seems to expend little energy on Turkish-Kurdish reconciliation — a potentiality with massive benefits in Syria and Turkey. This limited policy vision deploys clever short-run tactics at the expense of sustainable long-term strategy.
On the Syrian migrant crisis, U.S. policy sidesteps the factors driving the crisis, preferring to treat its effects from a safe geographic and diplomatic distance. The U.S. announced in late 2015 an additional $419 million in humanitarian assistance for Syria, bringing total U.S. contributions to $4.5 billion. These have made the United States the largest financial contributor to humanitarian relief for the Syrian people.
While generous financially, the United States does little to address the refugee crisis directly. With millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan, and Syria’s other neighbors, and Europe alarmed by hundreds of thousands more on its borders, the United States disengages from the problem. The Obama administration agreed to accept a mere 10,000 refugees — and even that number has remained out of reach due to logistical slog and arduous vetting requirement.
The United States has watched the European Union attempt to offload its refugee issue — granting Turkey a €3 billion payoff and an illusory reopening of EU accession talks in exchange for the Turks bearing the societal brunt of the crisis. Instead of leading an ambitious international effort to share the burdens, resettle refugees, and integrate them into new societies, the United States stands to the side. Meanwhile. Turkey buckles under the financial and social pressures of 2 million refugees.
The United States also misses an opportunity to work with Turkey and others to effect better conditions on the ground and ameliorate the circumstances driving the flow of additional refugees. Securing human populations, supporting local development in territory safe from conflict, and empowering civil society and political actors would change the calculus of migrants risking their lives and savings on passage to Europe.
Many will argue that these policy goals are unattainable for the United States. They will point to the wide-ranging and complex nature of U.S.-Turkish relations, and maintain the need to focus intensely on areas of policy agreement. Yet it is exactly this wide-ranging nature that affords opportunities for creative policymaking and unusual compromise.
U.S. policymakers must think more broadly about American and Turkish interests and equities. How might support on unrelated policy issues soften inflexibility regarding policy differences in Syria? Today, we aren’t even asking this type of question, and we can’t solve the Syrian conflict without it.
Dov Friedman is a specialist on Turkey and Kurdistan. He serves as U.S. director for Middle East Petroleum, a British-Turkish energy company. The views expressed are the author’s alone, and do not represent the positions of his employer. Follow Dov on Twitter: @dovsfriedman.